Social-Ecological Innovation

Social-Ecological Innovation

Rick Edgeman (Aarhus University, Denmark) and Jacob Eskildsen (Aarhus University, Denmark)
Copyright: © 2014 |Pages: 11
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-5202-6.ch201

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Social-Ecological Innovation (SEI) results from strategic integration of sustainable innovation and innovation for sustainability (Edgeman & Eskildsen 2012a). Sustainable Innovation results when innovation contributes to the financial security of the organization; is regular, systematic, and systemic to its endeavors, and is thus embedded in enterprise culture. Innovation for Sustainability addresses ecological or societal considerations so that it is generally a subset of the enterprise innovation portfolio.

SEI is critical to organizations intent on the asymptotic goal of becoming a continuously relevant and responsible organization (CR2O) through transformation of the 3E (equity, ecology, economy) strategy of the Triple Top Line (McDonough & Braungart, 2002a) into 3P (people, planet, profit) results associated with the Triple Bottom Line (Elkington, 1997). This is congruent with the cradle-to-cradle philosophy of product and service design, delivery, and lifecycle (McDonough & Braungart, 2002b) and with the status of sustainability as a key driver of innovation (Nidumolu, Prahalad, & Rangaswami, 2009).

From a SEI perspective, innovation is relevant to the organization, society, and the natural environment. Similarly, the organization is both relevant and responsibility with respect to society and the natural environment. Positive correlation of SEI with enterprise value (Al-Najjar & Anfimiadou 2012), affirms the profitability of SEI. More pervasively, SEI extending throughout an enterprise ecosystem contributes to socio-ecological resilience (Olsson & Galaz, 2011) with large-scale deployment possible through a modified form of quality function deployment (Edgeman & Hensler, 2005).

While SEI is defined, it must also be proliferated and assessed and any serious assessment requires not only an understanding of what SEI is, but also of how and in what forms it manifests, how developed or mature it is, and how to improve future SEI strategy and results. SEI is herein elaborated, maturity scale assessment for SEI is described, and a simple assessment report that combines graphic and narrative feedback is presented. The assessment report is referred to as a SEI News Report and provides feedback to the organization concerning its present SEI performance, while also delivering significant foresight that will inform future SEI efforts, advance Sustainable Enterprise Excellence (SEE) performance, and aid progress toward becoming a CR2O. As such, the enabling role of SEI in SEE is also briefly addressed.



Enterprises face mounting challenges in three primary sustainability areas that from a strategy perspective represent the 3E triple top line elements of equity, ecology and economy and from a results perspective are associated with the 3P triple bottom line elements of people, planet, and profit. Using more familiar business vocabulary, the equity-people, ecology-planet, and economy-profit synapses represent societal sustainability, environmental sustainability, and financial sustainability. Business reality typically dictates the primacy of financial sustainability since an enterprise that is economically unstable will ordinarily poorly contribute to society and will be unable to perform in environmentally responsible ways.

Despite the primacy of the financial sustainability domain, regulatory compliance, societal concerns, consumer demands, and stakeholder expectations have stimulated enterprise urgency to produce sustainable results not only with respect to financial performance, but also societal contributions and impacts on the natural environment. Thus far however, rapidly increasing societal and environmental challenges have outpaced organizational capacity to successfully address such challenges. Such capacity is composed of many factors, including enterprise intelligence concerning the challenges themselves, and the ability to embed innovation of the needed scope, scale, trajectory, and velocity in enterprise strategy, policy, and practice. SEI is associated with this latter organizational capacity factor and is consistent with the innovation lens of the balanced scorecard (Kaplan & Norton, 1992).

While SEI if focal to the present discussion, it is perhaps of greatest value as a critical enabler of SEE, where SEE is defined as:

Key Terms in this Chapter

Innovation for Sustainability: innovation that is explicitly targeted to positively address societal and/or environmental considerations.

SWOT Plot Narrative: A written description of enterprise strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats made with respect to an issue of relevance.

Social-Ecological Innovation: (SEI) Integration of sustainable innovation and innovation for sustainability.

Triple Top Line: Organizational strategy and design thrust emphasizing the 3E elements of equity (social fairness), ecology (environmental preservation and improvement), and economy (enhanced prosperity).

Triple Bottom Line: Organizational performance orientation emphasizing sustainable results in the 3P areas of people (social responsibility), planet (environmental results), and profit (business results).

Maturity: Index: A measurement or assessment scale that indicates the degree of progress made by an enterprise with respect to the issue or element that the scale is intended to address.

Sustainable Innovation: An enterprise culture characteristic wherein innovation is regular, systematic, and systemic to enterprise strategy, activities, and results.

Resilience: The ability to recover from challenges or to overcome obstacles. In a social-ecological context this refers to the innovation capacity of the organization to successfully address societal and environmental challenges.

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